The Man With a Memory
A story of intrigue in that part of South America where politics wax hot as the climate
H. DE VERE STACPOOLE
I MET him on a Spanish-American boat. He seemed to be a man of no particular nationality, helped out with a slight American accent, and his name was Shayler. He was a person I could have flown from at sight, only you can’t fly far on a seven-hundred-ton intermediate, and besides there was nothing else to perch with in the way of conversational humanity but fat Argentine women and their families, and Jews from Port Alegre.
So, as a matter of fact, we chummed up in a way, and the dull dead eye of Mr. Shayler became distinctly less depressing after a few days of propinquity, for he had travelled much, and he could talk and tell queer stories--but none queerer than the story he told me about himself, speaking in a flat level voice rarely rising to the point of emotion.
“I have got an almost perfect memory,” said Mr. Shayler, “nothing is absolutely perfect in this world, but, anyhow, I’ll put my memory down on the table and you can put anything else you like beside it, from the Venus of Milo to Einstein’s theory, and I bet my old memory won’t take the prize for flaws.
“I’m not boasting of it. To tell the truth, a great memory isn’t worth much to a man as a commercial asset. That seems funny, but it’s true; it’s useful, and at times it is very useful, but those times are not often. However, they occur, and I’ll give you a story to show how I used it once and —say, I’ll give you a proof. Write down any number of figures you like on a piece of paper, let me glance at them, and then, having told you my story, I will repeat those figures for you forward or backward, having kept.them in my head the whole time.”
I got a sheet of the ship’s notepaper, and wrote down: 1463820429738 9.
Shayler read the numbers, gave me back the sheet of paper, which I put in my pocket, and started on his story.
North of Chile there’s a South American state we’ll call Salamander—not to be personal; it’s as hot as Hades, anyhow, and fit only for salamanders to live in; and the politics match the climate and the people match the politics. El Passo is the name of the capital. It lies on the coast and has a good harbor for shipping, an old mud fort from the time of the conquistadors, and a cathedral like a Christmas cake fixed up with bells that chime the quarters. There’s a square called La Plaza by the Cathedral, a big place set with flame-trees, and I was sitting there in front of a cafe one night with one of the chief traders, Ramon Olivia, when Ramon tips the ash of his cigar into his coffee saucer, and says: “Well, what about it?”
I must tell you he’d been at me for two days to get me to help in the revolution that was brewing. There’s nearly always a revolution either in the vat or on tap in these South American republics. The one at Salamander was on tap, and Ramon, with his sleeves rolled up, was only waiting to pull the handle of the beer-engine; he wanted me to help in serving.
In other words, he wanted me to take a confidential document down to Valdivia in Chile to Andersen Garbett, a Yank who had come into the affair on the dollar side, and who had a shipful of armaments only waiting to discharge at the right moment and at the right spot on the coast, so Olivia said. Olivia had gone through the whole business with me, knowing I was safe, and he had made it clear to me where I stood financially --forty thousand dollars in cash and a big trading concession if the affair came off—that is to say, when Gomez, the present president, was put on the shelf and Olivia in his place.
Yes, Olivia wanted to be president and he had a strong backing, but there was also, he said, another chap named Alvarez who wanted to be president, and who also had a strong backing-. A curious situation, for, look you, Gomez, the real president, was nowhere just then. He was in power, it is true, but only kept there because Olivia wasn’t strong enough to swallow him on account of Alvarez, and vice versa.
But that cargo of machine guns, rifles, bombs and lord knows what, would give Olivia the teeth and jaws he wanted. It would be a full hand against a busted flush as regards Alvarez.
“Well,” said Olivia, dropping his cigar ash into his coffee saucer, “how about it?”
I said to Olivia: “Look here, I’m in on the thing right enough, but let’s simplify matters. You can’t send your document of directions by wire or by post; that’s clear. You want me to take the thing. The mail boat La Paz starts for Valdivia day after tomorrow. Now suppose by any chance I’m arrested going on board her with that thing in my pocket—you never know what spies may have found out—why run the risk? Why not let me memorize that document and carry it in my head instead of my pocket. I’ve got a memory that can’t be beaten.” He laughed. Pointed out that no man could carry such a thing in his head. There was the latitude and longitude of the bay where the arms were to be landed, a map with the soundings, and all sorts of other directions. He couldn’t be convinced; so I said: “All right. I’ll do it, so long as my name is not in the document. My introduction to Andersen Garbett must be in a separate letter, with nothing more than just a few lines stating that I am to be trusted as a business man.”
He agreed to this, and the matter was settled. Then he called for drinks and we lit up.
It was pleasant sitting there before that café and feeling that if things went right I would have a big slice out of the state of Salamander; there’s copper mines and quicksilver mines and timber, and there’s sapphires and saltpetre; and with Olivia for president I could put my hand about where I chose. And there was Olivia sitting beside me smoking his cigar, just a businessman trading in tobacco, coffee and sugar, yet maybe as good as a king in a month or so.
People were passing along. La Plaza is the favorite promenade for the townsfolk of an evening. A big moon had climbed up from beyond the cathedral and begun to fight the electrics; the band was playing—yes, it was pleasant that evening, and all the more so for the feeling that if a cog slipped or a nut worked loose in the business on hand, it would mean one’s back to the wall and a tiring party—there’s nothing like a bit of danger to give spice to life.
It came along.
As we were sitting there, an old man passed us, walking with a girl. The old chap had his sombrero off to feel the cool of the evening, and the girl had a fan which she opened and shut as she went. She was good-looking, and taller than most of the Salamander women.
“See that old fellow,” said Olivia, “he’s Alonzo Ferrara, and the girl is Juanita, supposed to be his stepdaughter. He’s a blackmailer, he’s a spy, and he’s a dope smuggler. She’s as bad as him. Fortunately, they have no wind of this business or they’d be out to make profit from it—and profit for them would be death to us.”
Olivia walked back with me to my hotel that night, and two days later I found myself on board the La Paz, clearing the harbor and bound south for Valdivia.
I wasn’t sorry when Picciala Point, which marks the Bay of El Passo, was wiped out by the sea astern. Ever since Olivia had given me the envelope with the document enclosed that morning, I had walked in danger of arrest, robbery or assassination; now I was safe, we were outside territorial waters, and so I was free of arrest. People don’t assassinate on board ship, and as for robbers there weren’t likely to be any here.
The luncheon bugle rang out. I went down to the saloon, and there seated at a table in the corner, helping herself to hors d’oeuvres, was Juanita Ferrara.
V\ LAS I sure? you might ask.
W Well, she was dressed different. She had dropped the mantilla, she might have been English or Frènch from her rig, but I was sure. I had only seen her once, just for a moment as she passed us outside that café, but I was sure. I doubted my own senses—but I was sure. And just as sure was I that she knew me without fancying that I knew her, and that she was after the envelope with its precious contents, in the locked suitcase in my cabin.
It would have been in my pocket, only that it was too big to carry without showing.
As I sat there at luncheon I reasoned the thing out. I said to myself: “You are in a dangerous position, up against big unseen forces. This is no little thing—there is a presidency at stake and millions of dollars in graft to be handled by whoever makes the new president.
“It’s as clear as paint that Ferrara has nosed out Olivia’s business, discovered through servants or spies that Olivia is sending secret instructions to Valdivia and that I’m the bearer of them, and has put this woman on to the job of getting hold of the document.
“With it in his hand he could do one of three things. Blackmail Olivia or sell it to Alvarez, the other ‘candidate’ for the Presidency, or take it to President Gomez and get a reward.
“Ferrara would stick at nothing, and this woman, you may be sure, is the true stepchild of her stepfather, and you may be sure she will stick at nothing either.
A woman has two ways of bribing, money or herself. Most likely she will be able to get an accomplice among the stewards or men of this ship. Very possibly she has one already, for the boat is a regular caller at El Passo, and Ferrara, with his interest in .dope smuggling and so forth, most likely has some creature of his on board of her.”
I argued that not only was the document in danger of being stolen, but that my life was in danger, too, not from loud and open assassination, but from some “accident!” You know that on board ship at night all deck lights are out except the binnacle, side, and foremost lights. I determined to avoid the decks at night for fear of falling overboard while looking over the rail at the star-shine on the water, or slipping and fracturing my skull.
Food I considered safe, as the dishes were communal and the bread basket open to choice; but I would not take a cup of coffee in my cabin, or a drink in the bar unless I saw it poured from the bottle.
All these thoughts and decisions passed through my mind as I sat at luncheon. Then I went to my stateroom, and having made sure that the document was safe, I sat down for a smoke.
CHE had only glanced in my direction once at luncheon, ^ but that glance was enough.
It wasn’t casual; it was purposeful. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it, what a turn of the head or glance of the eye may tell one. I reckon there’s a whole language in movement, and the guy that works it out and publishes a dictionary on it, will make his fortune.
That movement of the head and glance told me that she knew I was there, and that she did not want to attract my attention —oh, it told me a lot!
I must have been pointed out to her by someone either on the ship or the quay, for she had not seen me that night when I was outside the café. Anyhow and however it was, she knew me.
Sitting there smoking in my stateroom I felt as a chap might feel in a house where there was a bombshell hidden he didn’t know where—a bombshell with a time fuse.
Sure I was that I would be attacked, either on the ship or when I had landed at Valdivia, attacked for the sake of this document. It might be that, failing everything else, I would be arrested at Valdivia on some false charge before I could reach Garbett.
I’m a quick thinker and quick to act. I rang the stateroom bell, and when the steward came, I ordered him to fetch me a jug of hot water and a glass. He brought them, and I locked my door, got the envelope from my suitcase and steamed it open. There was no seal, only the gummed flap to deal with, and I had determined to memorize the document and destroy it.
Well, there was the thing, three pages of folded typescript, and a map.
I read the thing through. It was a terrible document to be found with. Of course, there was not a word to incriminate Olivia, but that cunning devil had done better than that. There was stuff in it to incriminate Alvarez; in fact Alvarez’s name was mentioned as paymaster. Of course, Garbett would know the trick. It was likely that all communications between Olivia and Garbett contained the same snag, so that, if it were intercepted, Alvarez would be the man that would get it in the neck. Pretty clever, wasn’t it?
I must tell you that in the document, although there were directions to say where the arms were to be landed, on the map there was not a single written word. It was a coastline map, showing several bays and the soundings and reef passages. Garbett would know, no doubt, the bay intended. The thing was useless to anyone else and non-incriminating. I determined to keep the map, which was on thin paper and which I would put in my pocketbook.
Then I sat down and read the document through, carefully memorizing it. Having done that, I did not destroy it as I had at first intended. I put it back in the envelope, gummed the flap, and put the thing on the lid of my suitcase, rang the bell for the steward to take away the jug and glass—I’d flung the contents of the glass out of the porthole so he might think I’d drunk it - and while he was doing this I caught up the envelope as though I’d forgotten I’d left it out, put it in the suitcase and shut the lid.
“Now,” I said to myself, “if that bedroom steward is in the swim he’ll have something to go on.”
I wanted that thing stolen.
The idea of Ferrara’s daughter taking it to Ferrara, and Ferrara blackmailing Alvarez with it seemed a good joke, but it was not the joke I was after so much as safety. Once the thing was stolen from me I was safe, and still I was carrying it—in my head.
I reopened the suitcase and put it at the bottom under the clothes; then leaving the case unlocked, I came on deck.
I had done all I could do, and a man can’t do more than that, and I stayed on deck all afternoon to give them a chance. There was no sign of the girl. She was evidently sticking to her cabin. Then I played cards in the smokeroom till quarter before dinner time, went down to dress, felt in the suitcase, and discovered much against my hopes that the beastly thing was still there.
The girl was at dinner that night, but she did not look at me —not once, nor even in my direction. I played cards in the smokeroom after dinner till twelve o’clock, went down to bed, and felt for the thing—still there.
CAME thing next day.
Then I began to doubt whether she had any holding in that ship in the way of accomplices. If so, they were pretty blind in their intellects. They must have known the thing wasn’t on me, for I was going about, except at dinner and lunch, without a coat, in a tussore silk shirt and white flannels most of the time, owing to the hot weather. And knowing that, and knowing how I kept the deck, why didn’t they go through my baggage if they were on the warpath?
Day after day, same thing. The girl came^on deck in the morning sat in a chair on the promenade deck reading a book, and I fetched a book out of the ship’s library and took a seat not far from her. Then I thought I’d pretend to go to sleep and I did —but I went to sleep in earnest and didn’t wake up till lunch time. She was gone and the deck clear of passengers, and I must have been asleep two hours solid; and full of joyful anticipation down I went to my cabin, opened the suitcase and put in my hand—the blasted thing was still there.
That night I thought I’d pretend to get fuddled in the bar, so’s to make any interested party believe I’d sleep well and good—but I did more than pretend. The stuff laid me out, and I had to be carried to my stateroom, and that on board of a Spanish ship—you may guess how the news spread!
I woke up in the morning feeling sure I had been doped—I’m pretty sure of it still—and out of my bunk I got, with a heart uplifted, as you may say, and into the suitcase I popped my hand—it was still there.
I could have cried.
In the saloon at breakfast she wasn’t there; she was one of those people who have no use for breakfast. If she had been I had it in my heart to have gone and fetched the thing and laid it on her plate as a present.
However, things were moving, though I didn’t know it. So was the ship.
We’d struck a streak of bad weather and the sea had risen, giving us a roll; and as it was pouring rain on deck, with a cold wind from the Andes, coming back to my stateroom I didn’t use the deck, but came along the starboard alley-way, and as I came, a roll of the ship flung a door half open. It was the door of the purser’s cabin, and what did I see but the purser in his big overcoat, just come down from above, and the girl !
The cabin was on the leeward side of the ship, and the cabin port was open, and there was the girl. She was still dressed in the evening togs she always wore at night—a green dress it was and pearls. She’d evidently never gone to bed, and I could judge that by the glimpse I had of her face as well as by her dress. And it didn’t want more than a glimpse to tell that she and the purser were quarrelling, standing face to face, and she holding a bunch of papers, as if threatening to throw them out of the port.
I heard him say in Spanish, “Don’t! I’ll take the five hundred dollars.” Then came another roll and the door clapped to, and I went on.
They hadn’t seen me. The whole thing hadn’t taken more than ten seconds, but, as the story-book writers say, it was a revelation.
I said to myself when I got back to my stateroom: “Why was she in evening dress? Why didn’t she go to bed last night?” I soon found the why, for an idea at the back of my head made me fish the envelope out of my suitcase and tear it open.
There was nothing but some blank paper inside.
Then I sat down on the side of my bunk and did a chuckle.
Last night was the night, and she and the purser between them had done the trick. I examined the envelope. It had been steamed open evidently as I had done it, and the gum giving out had been regummed, for there was a tiny blob of gum—no bigger than twice the size of a pin’s head—close to the flap and still moist.
I threw the papers and envelope out of the port hole and sat down to smoke the first comfortable pipe on that trip.
Well, sir, there it was, all wound up to go. When we reached Valdivia, and she’d paid the purser his five hundred dollars, she’d bolt back to El Passo with those papers and kibosh Alvarez, either by showing them to Gomez or blackmailing him white.
And now that the thing was done, my mind gave a kick against the idea of Alvarez being had like that. I’m not a moral man, not in a general way; still, I didn’t like it, and I fenced off my dislike of it with the idea that when the thing was over and Olivia in power, I’d see to it that Alvarez got some sort of compensation— if he hadn’t been shot first.
But God disposes.
Not one of us on that ship, neither the girl nor the purser nor myself, knew that old man Gomez had got wind of the fact that a treasonable document was on board the La Paz, and that after us was coming a thirty-knot destroyer.
NOW what would be the use of that, you’ll say, since the La Paz was a Spanish ship out of territorial waters and a thousand miles away from Salamander?
You wait. Las Casas is an island on the trade track to Valdivia, and Salamander owns it, just as Ecuador owns the Galapagos islands.
Old man President Gomez had sent after us not only a destroyer, but wireless instructions through the Spanish shipping company to call at Las Casas for extra cargo.
People wondered why Gomez kept the presidency so long. Well, he did it because he was a genius in his way, and this was one of his strokes. Those orders had come crackling on board during the night, when I was lying doped and being robbed, and there was nothing in them to give the purser or anyone else alarm.
Well, the day passed, and the following night, and next morning early in we came to Las Casas and anchored in the nice little harbor where the guano is loaded— it’s a guano island which brings thirty thousand a year to the state. Captain goes ashore and finds instructions by wireless to wait for the ship which is due with the extra cargo to be taken on board. Comes back, and scarcely has he got on deck when in comes the destroyer hand over fist, drops her anchor and boards us all at a stroke.
The Salamander naval officers are fine chaps, and wear gold dirks at their belts, same as the Jugoslavian navy officers.
Chap like a withered apple, with a gold dirk at his belt, comes along our deck with our captain.
Orders are, all passengers’ cabins to be closed for search; and at the word, that darn girl who was on deck gives the whole show away against herself by flopping down in a faint.
Naturally, her cabin is searched first, and the withered-apple chap finds the document. No use for her to squall and protest; there she was carrying a revolution in her pocket, so to speak. She tried to say it was the purser who gave it to her to keep, which the old man purser calmly denies. She daren’t tell the truth that she’d stolen it from me, and if she had, no one would have believed her. No, there she was tied to Alvarez, and fixed up to take the dock with him, she and her qld father or stepfather or whatever he was; and I might have pitied her, as they took her howling off to the destroyer, but it seemed to me that she had played it pretty low down on that purser; even though he was her accomplice.
But that’s not the end of the story; no, sir, the point’s in the tail. When I
reached Valdivia and went to find Garbett to discharge that memorized document and give him the map, I found no Garbett.
There was no such person in Valdivia.
Now think of that!
That black scoundrel of an Olivia—gosh, what a brain the chap must have had!—he’d used me, hypnotized me, worked me up with promises, made me see myself the first citizen of Salamander with him as president—and all to destroy his enemy Alvarez and get Ferrara jugged if possible. It was as plain to me as day when I’d thought it out. Plain as day.
Without any doubt he was the man who, by some underhand means, had got Ferrara to put his daughter after me, and he was the man to give Gomez the wink, reckoning that if the girl hadn’t done her work, the document would have been found on me anyhow. And t-he whole thing didn’t cost him a cent—not a cent, and there was no danger to him.
He’d no revolution up his sleeve. If I’d been caught with the document, I might have sworn myself black; no one would • have believed my statement that I wasn’t working for Alvarez. No, I’d have been hanged with Alvarez, or sent to the quicksilver mines maybe.
Do I know if they hanged Alvarez and what they did with the girl and her stepfather? No, I don’t. I’d had enough of that coast. I cleared west, and took a lodging for a month in the tenderloin district of N’York, so’s to get among decent, straight-living people and wash the taste of Spanish America out of my mouth.
And now, if you don’t believe in my story, you’ll believe in my memory. Get out that paper of figures.
I did, and he reeled them off right, backward and forward.
Then I believed his story. For a man with a memory like that could not possibly possess imagination.